Sister, Sister: Sisterhood & Womanism in the 90s

Womanism: “Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”[1]

Alice Walker     

A close friend told me being a Black woman is like being in a secret club of magic, sisterhood and friendship. Reflecting on Black women’s friendship and sisterhood on television and movies in the 90s, I, similarly see a consistent theme of support, unconditional love and acceptance.  These themes can be aligned to how Alice Walker describes a Black feminist in her definition of Womanism. Walker describes Womanism as young girl as “girlish” or  “womanish” or a black feminist or feminist of color. I find her description of Womanism as a means to provide a specific exploration into the lives of Black womanhood.

 I look specifically to Walker’s second definition because it captures the essence of the 90s Black woman who aims to take on the responsibility to be in charge of herself and to question the world around her. I reference how this can be explored in the hit show Living Single and the hit movie and book Waiting to Exhale. I utilize Walker’s second definition to explore how these women embody the spirit of being a womanist through the ways their characters interact with each other and how they stand alone as independent Black women loving and living in the 90s.

Looking at the lives of Khadijah James, Synclaire James, Regina Hunter and Maxine Shaw, Living Single explores the lives of four independent Black women in New York City. This show captures the “everydayness” of single Black women in New York who validated each other, dealt with love and relationships and enjoying each other’s company.

With each woman having their own characteristics and identities, each woman on the show had an important role in each other’s lives. Khadijah and Regina were childhood friends who supported each other when things got tough. This support and commitment were also fluid in Khadijah and Synclaire’s relationship as cousins who she employed at her own Hip-Hop magazine called “Flava”.

Maxie and Khadijah were college friends from Howard University and Maxie seemed to always be the advocate for strong independent Black women amongst her friends. Their friendship supports Walker’s definition because of the characters emotional flexibility, their commitment to women’s empowerment and their tough bond as friends that were seamlessly interconnected, through the best and worst of times.

Walker does a great job discussing the emotional and spiritual effort that goes into being a Womanist. Walker explains how Womanist appreciates women’s culture, loves women sexually and non-sexually and values a woman’s strength and weaknesses[2]. This is where the women in Terry McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale fit this definition. Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes and Gloria Matthews experienced tough trials of love, life and men. Through their experiences, the women supported each other through it all. There were words of affirmation and emotional support that showed people like Bernadine who was going through a terrible divorce that her friends were by her side.

I see Walker’s womanism as describing the social interactions, spiritual activism and critical thought that Black women do to uplift all people regardless of sexuality or gender. I understand this definition as a way to look at Black women’s liberation and healing of the self. Specifically, acting “womanish” seems to be a central theme in Waiting to Exhale. The four women were searching for answers to love, family and womanhood which is where I found the connection with Walker’s definition. This can be seen in Robin’s way of how she seemed to date the wrong men, but tried to see the best in them because she had love to give. Walker added the importance that a Womanist was not a separatist, but only in the occasion that Black woman in the 90s needs to repair her health. Gloria symbolizes the friend who represented self-care as a hairstylist and made sure her friends were always taking care of themselves, even if she didn’t want to do the big chop on Bernadine.

Furthermore, the importance of Walker’s definition and the analysis of  Black woman’s thoughts and feelings will better aid to the mental and emotional health and well-being where the Black woman can adequately take care of others and themselves in shows like Living Single and Waiting to Exhale. The womanist identity and the importance of Black women’s “everydayness” in the 90s was significant, interesting and relevant to highlighting the ugly and the beautiful of what it means to be a Black woman. These women work on coming into their own and being Black adult women who may not have it all figured out. But with the power of resilience, self-love and love for each other, the magnitude and power of their friendship kept them moving forward. — Adeerya J.

Citations

[1]Walker, A. (2006). Womanist. In L. Phillips, The Womanist Reader (p. 19). New York: Routledge.

[2]ibid.

 

love jones: Showcasing Black Love

While the early 1990s offered iconic hood films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), love jones (1997) offered something rarely seen in mainstream film—black love. The film is not a comedy. Not infused with hip hop. Love is examined, revered, and resented—but it is not minimalized. Furthermore, it offers unapologetic black sexuality shown with beauty and whit.

love jones movie poster

Roger Ebert’s opening to his film review highlights the unfortunate rarity of a film showcasing educated, middle class blacks. He explains, the film is “a love story set in the world of Chicago’s middle-class black artists and professionals–which is to say, it shows a world more unfamiliar to moviegoers than the far side of the moon.”[i] Although American television watchers received a glimpse of the black middle class with The Cosby Show (1984-1992), it was a comedy.

Furthermore, Cosby could offer the loving image of the Huxtable marriage, but the limits of the medium of television and family sitcom model prevent it from exploring black sexuality. There are limits to a love story that cannot show sex. Sex is a natural part of love. The film offers tasteful love scenes. It presents images of black sexuality that not only appear normal—but beautiful.

still from love jones

While most hood films centered on stark realism and nihilism, love jones offered symbolism and romance. Writer and director Theodore Witcher did this purposefully. He wanted to give the feel of “a modern Chicago version of the Harlem Renaissance.”[ii] He even distributed books about Renaissance artists such as Romare Bearden to the cast and crew.[iii]

It’s not difficult to see the influence of romanticized visions of 1920s salons with writers and artists debating esoteric topics. But how else do you create a platform to simply discuss love? Throughout the film, characters talk about the meaning of love. It is how we are introduced to Tate’s character Darius as he sits around with his friends in the Sanctuary (a spoken word venue) debating the meaning of love; Darius paints a metaphor of hope and possibility. Soon after he offers a sensual version of love in the spoken word piece “A Blues for Nina.” We also watch Darius and his only married friend Savon discuss the struggle to stay in love.

Ironically both Nia Long and Larenz Tate had major roles in the two iconic hood films mentioned earlier. Nia Long played Brandi, the love interest of the main character in Boyz n the Hood. Moreover, Tate played the infamous killer O-Dog in Menace II Society. Tate’s performance was so convincing that Witcher had to meet Tate in person to see the difference between the gangsta character and the actor.

And love jones continues to have an impact. Tate explains, “‘I get stopped at the airport by young folks telling me how much they love the movie and the actors and the music…It’s a one-of-a-kind film. And it’s still relevant. It’s about falling in love, and we’ve all done that…It’s not about people getting killed, just about people. Love is a universal story, Black or White.”[iv]  Ebony Gibson

[i] Ebert, Roger. “Love Jones.” Rogerebert.com. March 14 1997.

[ii] Ebert

[iii] Poulson-Bryant, Scott. “Jonesing for Love Jones.” Ebony (October 2010): 100.

[iv] Poulson-Bryant, page 99.